A Conversation with Ernst Haas
By Janis Bultman
Published in Darkroom Photography, May 1986 and in Legacies: Interviews with Masters of Photography from Darkroom Photography Magazine, 2018.
Ernst Haas (1921-1986), honored by Popular Photography in 1958 as one of the world’s ten greatest photographers, is often described as a free spirit. A native of Vienna, Haas has lived in New York City since 1950, but you’re as likely to find him in Europe, the Orient, or even Marlboro Country as in his midtown apartment just down the street from Carnegie Hall. At 64, he’s a successful commercial photographer, one of three to photograph the iconic Marlboro man, but his Leicaflex certainly isn’t always trained on client-mandated subjects. His book The Creation, a collection of photographs that demand an almost visceral response, is one of the most popular books of photography ever published. He’s also the author of In America, In Germany, and Himalayan Pilgrimage, and the creator of a series of lush, thought-provoking audiovisual presentations.
JB: You’ve had exhibits at a number of prestigious venues, including New York City’s Museum of Modern Art and Cologne’s Photokina. But now you rarely exhibit your photographs in the traditional manner—by hanging them on the wall. You put them in books, or show them in your audiovisual presentations. Why is that?
EH: I was never really happy with the end result of hanging a photograph on the wall. This form of exhibition is an old hang-up from painting. We’re conditioned to think that if something is extraordinary, then it should be hung on the wall. Photography comes from seeing. It’s a living experience. It’s a process. I like to present it that way.
JB: What do you mean by process?
EH: Picasso’s work is a good example of process. He attains a metamorphosis of a theme by exploring it in, say, 200 pictures. What I do with photography is similar except that I like to show the process. The audiovisual presentation is a way to express motion in time. I love that it is not one picture after another, as it is in a gallery, but the melding of two images to create a third image. You can really juxtapose anything with anything and leave it to the audience to interpret it. And they have to participate in an audiovisual. I always notice that at my audiovisual presentation more people sit like this [Haas sits forward, peering intently at an invisible screen], than this, like they do at a movie [he sits back in his seat, assuming a mildly interested expression].
JB: How long have you been making audiovisual presentations?
EH: About ten years. It began when I visited the island of San Michele, in Venice, where the dead are buried. Each grave has a little photograph. Some go back to 1850. But the sun is so strong that it starts to influence the photograph, and because the chemicals were not so pure as they are now, very often the images start to solarize and eventually disappear. In a way, it’s a second death. Suddenly, a nose is missing and an eye and a mouth. Then there’s just the outline of a head. I loved it. But how do you show this? Then I learned there was a technique where you could blend one image against another and set it all to music. This I liked because I’ve always been fascinated with music, and I always wanted to combine the two mediums, which don’t need translation and are international.
After that, I discovered I had begun to photograph for my audiovisuals. It became a completely different way of seeing. You begin to think in terms of sequences. But when you stop and think about it, even with a book or a portfolio, you still often work toward a theme, and you show variations of it. I work in a fluid process. That’s why an 8×10 camera is not for me. I work unconsciously. I love to be surprised by myself. The more you work with a bigger camera, the more you become static. You are no longer within flux, and I love this flux—the fluidity of the process.
JB: Have you tried anything similar with video?
EH: It’s too small, and the image isn’t as good. It doesn’t have the volume. When you blow up a good 35mm—that’s when you really start to feel something. You see so many different nuances. Also, I notice with audiovisuals that people never see one totally. You show it to them a second time, and they say, “You changed a lot!” But I haven’t changed anything.
JB: I’ve been struck by the advantage audiovisuals give the photographer in choosing how long viewers will look at each image. This is something the photographer has no control over with a book or gallery show.
EH: I wouldn’t hold one against the other. Both are totally different experiences. The audiovisual is in itself a very beautiful new art form.
JB: In addition to creating audiovisuals, you’ve published a number of books, including The Creation. It was first published in 1971, and a second edition was published in 1983. How do you account for its phenomenal success?
EH: It was a surprise for me. I didn’t expect it. I thought I’d sell maybe twenty thousand, but never a quarter of a million and more. But I was always interested in different creation myths, going back to my earliest childhood. I think that where we come from and where we go and the meaning of it all are elemental dilemmas for all of us. We’re instinctively fascinated with these myths and drawn to them. In The Creation, I tried to illustrate this through photographs of the seasons or the elements or of wildlife. And whenever I give a seminar, I always advise my students to try to photograph these myths, because we all have our own ideas about the creation.
JB: You’ve changed some of the images for the second edition.
EH: I changed them because some of the original images were damaged and because I had some images that I thought were better than the originals. You know, it isn’t finished when the book is published. You keep on photographing it. When the publishers came and asked me if I wanted to do a second edition, I was very happy. It meant I could redo some text and pictures. I am only unhappy the second edition is not printed as well as the first. The first one was printed with the gravure process. The second is offset. In gravure, you can get a velvet color, which I need. I don’t like a glossy color very much. A book is always a compromise. You can get this color, but then you lose some of that color, you know? This is why I always go to be there when they start printing, to decide where to make the compromises.
JB: The notes about the photographs in The Creation are a testament to the amount of traveling you’ve done. There are photos taken in the Amazon, India, Iceland, the Galapagos, Uganda…
EH: Last year was the worst. I was away almost eight-and-a-half months. That includes four months in Japan. These last two months, I was in seven countries. It becomes insane.
JB: Were you traveling on assignment?
EH: Yes, I took on quite a few commercial assignments last year, so I can do my own work this year and can leave New York knowing my children will be taken care of. I can always live on very little.
JB: Do you pick and choose your assignments these days?
EH: Well, I have assignments that I like, but there’s an interesting thing that happens that I’ve often talked to other well-known photographers about. You can get such a good reputation that almost nobody calls you. They assume you would never agree to work for them, or they think you’ll be too expensive. So they hire someone less well known and ask him to do the photography a la so and so. That means it’s not always an advantage to have a good reputation. For me, they probably think I’m too old, since I’ve been in the business so long. “He must be at least 80!”
JB: If you didn’t travel so much on assignment, would you travel anyway?
EH: Maybe it sounds snobbish, but I don’t really travel. I feel this is all one territory, one world. I have friends in India, and I go there, and it’s like home. I go to Japan, and it’s like home.
When I first started traveling, it took seven hours to get from Vienna to Innsbruck. Today, I can go from New York to Europe in less than seven hours. So I don’t feel that I’m transporting myself in any extraordinary way by going to Japan or India, and I don’t feel that I’m seeing anything extraordinarily new. At my age, I like to go places where I’ve been and dig deeper. It’s too late to be surprised by a new place.
And I like places that are small. People say I should go to see China, but it’s too big. I’d rather delve into the small and make something big—something magnificent and deep and profound—than delve into something I can only lick and tickle a little bit. That’s why I like Japan so much. I’m working on a book about it.
JB: You’ve written that you believe a photographer’s normal development should go from black-and-white to color as a kind of natural progression.
EH: Yes. It’s like when you learn to paint, you should be able to draw, and if you compose music, you should know the notes, so you can make a sketch of your music. I have a great love for black-and-white photography. I spent almost fifteen years working with it. But good color is much more particular. I don’t think it’s black-and-white versus color, good versus bad. There is mediocre versus masterful in both mediums. I have great admiration for photographers like Cartier-Bresson and Edward Weston who worked only in black-and-white.
JB: And it was Cartier-Bresson who taught you about the decisive moment, which is so important in your own work.
EH: Yes, I would never have known about the decisive moment in color if Henri hadn’t defined it in black-and-white. What is most remarkable about photography is not the miracle of reproduction, but that you can hold a moment. This had never before happened in the history of art. Before, all our moments were idealized moments, all beautifully composed. The psychological structure of the decisive moment in color is similar to black-and-white. You see a moment of depth and react with a certain pah! that comes from the stomach. It doesn’t come from thought but from feeling. But it’s not the same as in black-and-white. Each requires a different way of seeing. In color, there is more happening, more to balance and juggle and more that can go wrong.
JB: Was your early black-and-white work documentary in nature?
EH: When I started photographing right after the war, my work was very abstract. I took some of this work to Switzerland to show the editor of the magazine Du. He said, “How strange. Here’s a young man from a war-torn city like Vienna, and he photographs in the abstract, instead of documenting the ruins.” But, you see, I grew up in the ruins. For me, they were nothing extraordinary. Then he showed me the work of a photographer named Werner Bischof. I was so impressed! The editor said, “Do you want to meet him?” I said, “No, I want to go back to Vienna and photograph!” Almost two years later, Robert Capa invited me to Paris to join Magnum along with Bischof. That’s when I met him.
JB: That’s about the same time you declined an offer to join Life’s staff.
EH: Yes. At the time, it was considered like a fantastic part in a Hollywood movie, but I’m not made for staff. I had been with Life photographers, and I never envied them. They were a pampered lot, and spoiled, although they worked very hard. I eventually left Magnum too. I love them all. They’re very nice. But I wanted to be by myself.
JB: You’ve often said that when you were working in black-and-white you reached a point when you were longing for color. What was the turning point?
EH: It was about 1949. You see, the war was a gray time. There was no courage for color. The houses were gray, the clothes were gray, the food was gray, the mentality was gray—everything was gray. When peace broke out, color broke out too. People stared to paint everything.
I remember working for some Americans with teenagers who had socks ringed with many different colors. I thought they were the most beautiful things I’d ever seen, so I traded for a pair. The color fascinated me. Our society was so colorless. We didn’t want to stand out, so we became gray to blend into the masses. Color to me meant, “Here I am! Look at me!” I come from a culture where the older you get, the grayer you get. A woman who is sixty should wear black. A man who is sixty wears dark gray or brown. Color is only for the children. It’s not like that in this country.
JB: Did you start photographing in color before or after you came to New York?
EH: My first color story was a two-part series on New York City that was published in Life. It was a big event for color photography because Life was only using 4×5 color at that time. So 35mm was new to them. National Geographic had done it before—they always worked in 35mm. It was during this time when Life would send you out to shoot black-and-white and color at the same time. That became very difficult, and I tried to avoid it, because if you really see color, it’s difficult to translate that into black-and-white.
JB: Jumping ahead a few years, you once opened a photo gallery with Jay Maisel and Pete Turner devoted exclusively to color photography. Why did it close?
EH: The Space Gallery. Yes. But color was very expensive, and it didn’t succeed. It’s such a pity, because now I think it might. The gap between color and black-and-white photography would be much smaller if we could make prints in color as well as we can in black-and-white. But we still can’t. Type C is not really good color and Cibachrome is so-so. Dye transfer is really good color, but is so disproportionately expensive. With what I spend to make one dye transfer, I could make one hundred black-and-white prints. We have the best lenses and fantastic films right now, but we can’t translate it, unless we project it.
JB: You mentioned earlier that it’s too late to be surprised by new places. Do you think you’ve reached a point in your career where you’re thinking in terms of summing up?
EH: Yes. At 64, you have to begin thinking about how you want to conclude the cycle.
JB: In looking back over your work, is there anything that stands out as especially successful?
EH: Successful? I really don’t k now quite what that means. It’s not that I want to be a snob, but my conclusion is not only concerned with photography. It goes beyond photography. This is what I teach in my seminars. Photography is a springboard. To see and to feel and to think and bring it together as a total experience—that, I think, is a conclusion.